SFIFF The evening breeze caresses the trees tenderly early on in João Pedro Rodrigues's To Die Like a Man. This shift from the furious winds of Rodrigues' Odete (a.k.a. Two Drifters, 2005) is a signal that the director, ever aware of the lexicon he's blooming, is adopting a languid pace. Rodrigues' third feature film isn't immune to irony, a main one being that slow death allows his cinema to breathe most deeply.
At the onset, To Die Like a Man does not seem like the story of a drag queen perishing from poisonous silicone implants. Rodrigues begins in a nighttime jungle of young male longing, in a nod to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (2004), though his vision is much less chaste. Greasepaint is applied to a beautiful young soldier's face, and upon wearing that militaristic form of drag, he's soon fucked by the masculine makeup artist. Moments later, the two enlistees happen upon a lone mansion and peer through a window. The pair of ladies within are ... not quite ladies. We are in a world where a lush garden is gradually revealed to be a terrarium, and that terrarium is soon visually rhymed with an aquarium. Nothing is what it seems, except that which flowers and dies.
It isn't until after a gunshot and Rodrigues' trademark blood-red letter credits that we are introduced to Tonia (Fernando Santos), a buxom blonde who bears a familial relation to one of the soldiers. Not quite weary enough to dispense with her wry wit, Tonia makes her living performing drag numbers at a club, where a beautiful and quite opposite heir apparent (Jenni La Rue) looks down at her from the other side of a mirror. At home, she cares for her drug-addled, dress designer boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David). Her chief confidante, her little white dog Augustina, appears to be slightly more obedient.
Santos' presence at the heart of To Die Like a Man opens up Rodrigues' distinctive world view, giving this musical without (much) music a true voice besides that of the director quite literally in one bravura sequence, where Tonia half-whispers, half-sings a song long after Rosario angrily snuffs it from the car radio, as the world passing by is reflected in a car window adorned with raindrops. The hot-as-hell garbageman of Rodrigues' O Fantasma (2000) and the leggy lunatic of his schematic Odete are as mute as they are ravishing, but Tonia has something to say, in tones that are smoky and relaxed and resigned to fate. Within English-language films, Divine's siren song in Hairspray (1988) and Dorian Corey's backstage aria of wit in Paris is Burning (1990) are the best touchstones for Tonia ones that reveal the heft of Santos' performance.
In life, Tonia has not fully crossed over to the other side. To illustrate her ladylike sensitivity, she complains to her transsexual friend and hairdresser, Irene (Cindy Scrash), about a doctor's blunt, origami-like demonstration of how a penis is transformed into a vagina through surgery. But the man beneath Tonia isn't immune to a cruise through the dark for a grope in the park.
A true auteur who hasn't fallen prey to the excessive worship that has hindered influences such as Tsai Ming-liang, Rodrigues is cultivating his craft. He's aware that he's still developing, yet comfortable enough about his formidable command that he can casually deploy the motifs of great filmmakers as pivot points. If Odete's peculiar double-vision was constructed from the eyes of Hitchcock and Warhol, To Die Like a Man is his In a Year of 13 Moons (1978), or 1999's All About My Mother changed to All About My Father.